There has been a lot of talk about the bad football being played in the NFC East. But while one coast struggles, the other has been thriving.
The NFC West is dazzling (Week 9 excepted), as the Seattle Seahawks have arguably the most exciting offense in the league and the MVP favorite in Russell Wilson. Aaron Donald is the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year and leads a fearsome Los Angeles Rams defense that hopes to lead them to a second Super Bowl in three seasons. The Arizona Cardinals are on pace to become the next “it” team, with creative second-year coach Kliff Kingsbury and dual-threat quarterback Kyler Murray making big plays.
As we hit the midpoint of the season, we’ve asked NFC West writers Brady Henderson (Seahawks), Lindsey Thiry (Rams), Nick Wagoner (49ers) and Josh Weinfuss (Cardinals) a few questions about why the West Side is the best side during the 2020 NFL season.
What more than anything sets the NFC West apart?
Brady Henderson: There’s no easy out. The AFC North has at least one and maybe two teams that would rank ahead of anyone in the NFC West in most power rankings after a rough Week 9 for Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona. But it also has a 2-5-1 Cincinnati Bengals team that’s still in rebuilding mode. Even the 49ers, last place at 4-5, are competitive. No other division has a last-place team with more than three wins.
Lindsey Thiry: Coaching. The NFC West features three coaches who have taken their teams to the Super Bowl over the past six seasons, plus an up-and-comer who has excited a stagnant franchise. Now in his 11th season in Seattle, Pete Carroll has led the Seahawks to eight playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title, while proving — regardless of significant roster turnover — that the Seahawks can be counted on as annual contenders. Rams coach Sean McVay and 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan joined the division in 2017 and each has led his team to a Super Bowl. Kliff Kingsbury took over a 3-13 team and in his second season has the Cardinals in second place in the NFC West while sporting one of the league’s most dynamic offensive schemes.
Nick Wagoner: Depth and coaching. It’s cute that other divisions — looking at you, AFC North — think they have a claim as the NFL’s best, but no division in football boasts the depth of the NFC West. As it stands, only the 49ers have a record below .500, and that almost certainly wouldn’t be the case if the defending NFC champions didn’t have a Pro Bowl-caliber roster on injured reserve. No other division has four teams with a positive point differential, either. The secret to that success? Coaching. The NFC West has three brilliant offensive minds — Kliff Kingsbury, Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan — who are unafraid to push the envelope and innovate. That doesn’t even account for Pete Carroll, one of the most accomplished coaches in the league who has shown a willingness to adapt by finally letting Russ cook.
Josh Weinfuss: The quarterback and wide receiver duos. Each team has a good, if not great, young(ish) quarterback and each has good-to-great receivers who make each offense exciting and dynamic. The Seahawks have Russell Wilson with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. The Cardinals have Kyler Murray with DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald. The Rams have Jared Goff with Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. The Niners have Jimmy Garoppolo with Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. The future of each offense is bright and it helps make the intradivisional games so interesting.
Will all four teams make the playoffs?
Stephen A. Smith doesn’t foresee the 49ers returning to the Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.
Henderson: No. That no longer seems realistic with the 49ers getting decimated by injuries, including the recent ones that landed quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and tight end George Kittle on injured reserve. But the NFC West could still conceivably produce two of the conference’s three wild-card teams in addition to the division winner. Green Bay and Chicago look like the only contenders in the NFC North. Same with Tampa Bay and New Orleans in the NFC South. The NFC East doesn’t appear to be in any danger of producing more than one playoff team.
Thiry: No. With the playoff expansion and seven teams qualifying from each conference, the NFC West might see three teams from the division earn a playoff berth, but even that appears to be a reach if the division beats up on itself. Expect two teams to emerge from NFC North, South and West — unless the Bears suffer a breakdown, then the West can get three teams in.
Wagoner: No. But three is possible, if not likely. Three would have gone last season had the NFL had the seventh playoff spot available then. It’s hard to imagine the 49ers, given their litany of injuries, making a run at the postseason, but the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals are in the mix. In fact, the NFC South is the only other division that has two really strong playoff candidates, which means it would be completely reasonable for the NFC East and North to send one team each, with two from the South and three from the West to round it out.
Weinfuss: No. The 49ers have just too many injury hurdles to overcome. They can’t stay healthy and because of that the defending NFC champions won’t be as competitive as they would’ve been. Beside that, the rest of the division is so competitive it will just be too difficult to win enough for everyone to push into the postseason.
Do you think the last-place team would win the NFC East and by how many games?
Henderson: No, but the 49ers would give the Eagles a fight. San Francisco has clearly been the better team so far, with a plus-18 point differential compared to Philadelphia’s minus-19. But the Eagles have won two straight to get to 3-4-1 while the 49ers are reeling without their quarterback and best player in Kittle. With a competent backup in Nick Mullens and an excellent playcaller in Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers could conceivably win four of their final seven games to finish 8-8, at best. The Eagles’ tie counts for a half a win, so they’d only have to finish 5-3 to end up with a better winning percentage. That seems more realistic than the 49ers winning five of their final seven.
Thiry: Yes. Through nine weeks, the NFC West is 8-1 against the NFC East, which includes the Rams’ sweep of the division by a combined score of 104-55. Keep in mind, the Rams are currently in third place in the NFC West, and the division’s lone loss to the NFC East was the 49ers’ 25-20 Week 4 loss to the Eagles, when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was out and the Niners relied on backups Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard. The last-place NFC West team would win the East by one game.
Wagoner: Yes, by a game or two. Even in their current state, the last-place 49ers would still have a good shot at winning the East. They’re 4-5 — playing an NFC West schedule — which would have them in first place in the East. They did lose to the Eagles at home, and that’s the team that would be their biggest competition, but it’s fair to think if the Niners played in the East they would be able to win at least four games within the division and reach seven or eight wins, which might be all it takes to win that division in 2020.
Weinfuss: Yes, by a game or two. Let’s not sugarcoat it — that team will very likely be the 49ers. San Francisco would be preparing for a playoff appearance if it played in the NFC East. But the Niners don’t, so they’ll be spending the second weekend of January on the couch.
Will the Super Bowl champion emerge from this division, and if so, who?
Dan Orlovsky says the Seahawks should be concerned after a Week 9 loss to the Bills.
Henderson: Not unless the Seahawks can fix their broken defense. They’re the division’s best hope to win the Super Bowl in large part because they have the best quarterback in Russell Wilson. But their two losses have shown how small his margin for error is with Seattle’s defensive limitations. Wilson has to be next to perfect and he was far from that against Arizona and Buffalo. The good news for Seattle: no other team in the NFC has more than six wins, so it’s not as though anyone is running away with the No. 1 seed.
Thiry: No. The NFC West is the best division from top to bottom, which will serve any of its teams well in a playoff run. At 6-2, the Seahawks are making the best case from the division to earn a trip to the Super Bowl, but with a defense giving up yards at a historic rate, it seems unlikely that will be good enough to earn a title unless there is sharp improvement.
Wagoner: No. For as deep and talented as the NFC West is, there are just too many glaring flaws for each team. Seattle’s defense has been historically bad and doesn’t seem to be getting much better, though maybe the addition of Carlos Dunlap and return of Jamal Adams will help. The Rams are inconsistent offensively and have struggled defensively against teams with competent offenses. And Arizona is intriguing but inconsistent and might not be ready to make that big of a leap yet. These teams are also going to beat up on each other while playing increasingly difficult schedules the rest of the way.
Weinfuss: No. I think the Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams are all good teams but each have enough deficiencies to keep them from even getting to the Super Bowl, much less winning it. The Cardinals have too many consistency issues on both sides of the football. For as great as Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins are playing this season, there are too many stretches when Murray has to do too much and Hopkins isn’t as big a part of the game plan as he should be. When the Rams have lost, they’ve lost big, a sign to me that if they face a good enough team in the playoffs, it could get out of hand quickly. And the same thing for the Seahawks, whose defense has been a sieve all season, giving up the most yards per game (455.8) in the league. Like the Rams, if Seattle runs into a good-to-great offense, it’s over.
Name your offensive and defensive MVPs
Henderson: No need to complicate this. It’s Wilson on offense and Aaron Donald on defense. Wilson might be losing his early season grip on league MVP, but he has still been the division’s most valuable player by a wide margin while carrying a team that has struggled on defense. And Donald is still Donald. He’s tied for the league lead in sacks with nine to go along with three forced fumbles and has the second-best pass rush win rate among defensive tackles. Cardinals safety Budda Baker gets honorable mention.
Thiry: Quarterback Russell Wilson and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Wilson leads the NFL with 28 touchdown passes to eight interceptions while leading the Seahawks to a 6-2 record. Donald has 28 pressures and is tied with Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett for a league-best nine sacks. With opponents continuing to shape their game plans around the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who has been double-teamed 171 times, opportunity has been created for teammates. The Rams have 25 sacks in eight games.
Wagoner: On offense it’s Wilson. I wanted to pick Kyler Murray for offensive MVP just to be different but wouldn’t want anyone complaining about Wilson not getting an MVP vote again. Wilson is the obvious choice and he has a legitimate shot at the league’s version of this award. But let’s take a moment to acknowledge the job Murray is doing in turning around a previously moribund Cardinals franchise. (DeAndre Hopkins deserves a shout here, too). On defense, it’s still Aaron Donald of the Rams. Like Wilson, Donald is the obvious choice for this and the league’s defensive player of the year award. At this point, Donald is a Hall of Famer and looks as if he’s going to go down as one of the game’s all-time greats, regardless of position. Honorable mention here to 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, the one positive constant in a turbulent season by the Bay.
Weinfuss: I’ve watched Kyler Murray every week this year and seen firsthand just how much of an impact he has had on the Cardinals’ offense — and by that I mean he has carried this team quite often throughout the season. If the Cardinals don’t have Murray this season, they’re not 5-3 and in the playoff picture. But Russell Wilson has been all that and more for the Seahawks. The numbers for both quarterbacks, when you combine passing and rushing — and you have to because running is a huge part of Murray’s game — are close. Murray has 2,673 combined rushing and passing yards and 24 total touchdowns to Wilson’s 2,806 and 29. But Murray and his top receiver DeAndre Hopkins just don’t have the same chemistry that Wilson has with Tyler Lockett. Ultimately, I went with Wilson for MVP. He doesn’t have as much talent around him as Murray does and is playing at a slightly better level despite losing his first head-to-head with Murray this season. I see it as No. 1 and No. 1A. On defense, it’s hard for me to pick anyone else besides Aaron Donald. Plain and simple.